Victor Spinetti, Tony Winner and Beatles Mainstay, Dies at 82

By Robert Simonson
June 20, 2012

Victor Spinetti, whose fame as a successful British stage actor was trumped by the distinction of having appeared in three of the five films The Beatles made, died July 19. The cause was cancer. He was 82.



Mr. Spinetti's long career probably reached its height in 1964, when "A Hard Day's Night" was released in movie theatres at the time when he appeared on Broadway in the seminal anti-war play Oh What a Lovely War! He won a Tony Award for his performance, which he created in the original London production of the play. But many of the theatregoers who bought tickets were there to see the man who supported The Fab Four as a flustered, effete television director decked out in a ridiculous, mohair, v-neck sweater.

Mr. Spinetti went on to play parts in "Help!" and “Magical Mystery Tour," and became friends with John Lennon. The two had met when Lennon and George Harrison visited the actor backstage at Oh What a Lovely War! The foursome were notably fond of the actor. Paul McCartney called him "the man who makes clouds disappear."

He was born in the mining town of Cwm in Wales, one of six children of a fish and chips stand owner. He attended the Cardiff School of Music and Drama. There he met his life partner, the actor Graham Curnow. (Curnow died in 1997.) He made his London debut in Expresso Bongo (1958), a satire on the newspaper industry that starred Paul Scofield. In it, he played a Fleet Street editor, a parson, a psychiatrist and a head waiter. The next year, he was invited to become a member of director Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop company at Stratford East. He remained with the group until 1965. As an actor, he became known for his wit, intelligence and quick tongue. Offstage, he was well liked as a garrulous storyteller and friendly figure.

He played opposite Jack Klugman in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple in London in 1966. In 1968 critic Kenneth Tynan, then dramaturg of the new National Theatre, invited him to co-write and direct an adaptation of John Lennon's "In His Own Write." More recently, he acted in the West End mounting of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

He appeared on Broadway three other times: in The Hostage (1960); La Grosse Valise (1965); and The Philanthropist (1971).

Aside from the Beatles triptych, he appeared on film in "Under Milk Wood," "The Taming of the Shrew" with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; "Becket," "Return of the Pink Panther" and "The Krays."

In the 1970s, he turned to directing musicals, including Hair in Amsterdam and Rome, and Jesus Christ Superstar in Paris. He put in a season with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1995.